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For Somali soccer stars, life in America is a whole new game

For Somali soccer stars, life in America is a whole new game

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In Somalia, Sa’ad Hussein was a celebrity.

When he netted the goal that earned his soccer team the 2011 national championship, he was the closest thing to a hero his bombed and failed country had.

But four years later, he was hiding in Kenya, starving and broke on a mattress on a dirty floor, willing to risk death for an escape from the squalor and fear.

He was there for his own safety. He and his best friend, Saadiq Mohammed, also a Somali soccer player, were the subjects of a documentary.

The movie would reveal that Sa’ad was threatened with death and lashed 38 times in front of his own village by members of the al-Shabab terrorist group that holds Somalia at its mercy.

Go back to Somalia, and al-Shabab might hunt and kill him.

Sa'ad on the floor in Nairobi

While living in Nairobi, Sa'ad's bed was a mattress on the floor. He almost never went outside for fear of being arrested. Courtesy of Sa'ad Hussein

Some of the few people Sa’ad still trusted were thousands of miles away in the U.S. Two people called him almost daily: Saadiq, who managed to get out of East Africa two years earlier and was living in St. Louis, and J.R. Biersmith, the St. Louis native who made the documentary, called “Men in the Arena,” that was now forcing them to uproot their lives.

The two were pleading for any safe country to accept Sa’ad as a refugee. They told Sa’ad whatever they could to make him stay.

“Please don’t go back,” they pleaded. “Please trust us.”

United through soccer

They were supposed to be rivals, not best friends.

Sa’ad, skinny with calves of steel and a close-shaved beard, played for the Elman Football Club.

Saadiq, two years younger and a few inches taller with a poof of curly hair, played for the Banadir Sports Club.

By the time their teams finally faced off in a game, Saadiq had heard enough about Sa’ad. On the radio, on social media, “all people could talk about was Sa’ad, Sa’ad, Sa’ad.”

“I thought, I have to beat his team!” Saadiq said. That first match ended in a tie.

Sa'ad in 2011 championship

Sa'ad led his team, Elman FC, to the Somali league championship in 2011, beating the Banadir Sports Club 2-1. Sa'ad scored both goals. Courtesy of J.R. Biersmith

When they met for the first time on Somalia’s national soccer team in 2012, they ended up as roommates, then best friends.

When the team flew to Sudan for a game, Saadiq noticed that Sa’ad wasn’t filling out his paperwork to enter the country.

Twice, Sa’ad brushed it aside. He would finish it later.

Ah, you’re just being lazy, Saadiq joked. But he knew something was up.

Sa’ad was embarrassed. He was 19 and had never learned to write. He was too poor to afford school. He couldn’t sign his own name.

“Here, people are shocked if you’re not in middle school. Not the same in Africa. If you’re a kid in Africa, if you don’t get an education and if you can’t leave the country, what is there to do?” Saadiq said. “Unless you pick up a gun.”

The only refuge was soccer. Kids can play it even if they can’t write, even if they can’t afford shoes, even if they only have a field of sand to play on.

Despite frequent suicide bombings by al-Shabab in Somalia, a country that has not known peace for three decades, the soccer stadiums are among the few buildings still standing intact.

Destroyed old parliament

What was left of Somalia's old parliament building when Biersmith was filming. Many buildings in Somalia have been reduced to skeletons by suicide bombs. Courtesy of J.R. Biersmith

That’s why Somalis are crazy about the sport, even though their national program hasn’t qualified for the World Cup in the tournament’s 86-year history.

That’s why Sa’ad and Saadiq are as famous in their homeland as the president: If you made it in soccer, you found a way to live without al-Shabab.

As the plane approached Sudan, Saadiq began filling out Sa’ad’s paperwork.

“Millions of people never get an education, and they’re still good,” Saadiq assured him. “Not everybody’s perfect.”

The filmmaker

On YouTube, the most viewed video that Biersmith has produced is of himself, getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the 2008 Victoria Secret fashion show from supermodel Adriana Lima.

“If she’s going to hold my hand the whole way, you ought to get this on tape,” he said to the camera before being led by Lima through a hall of glittering bras and feathered wings.

Before Saadiq and Sa’ad, before the poor of Somalia, Biersmith covered the rich and successful in Miami.

Now 36, Biersmith was born and raised in St. Louis.

He left the Midwest for the coasts, bouncing around New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Tall and charismatic with dirty blond hair and blue eyes, he imagined he would become a TV media personality.

He ran a short-lived Web talk series he had pitched to the Miami Herald. He interviewed a baseball player, singers and models. He got his eyebrows waxed at a “dudes only” spa.

After the show was canceled, he made a hobby of filming features about people such as rock musicians in Afghanistan and Jamaican dog sledders. He was looking for deeper stories to tell.

About four years ago, Biersmith listened to an episode of the public radio show “Fresh Air” about terrorism after 9/11. He heard journalist Michelle Shephard talk about terrorism in Somalia.

This could be his chance to have an impact, Biersmith thought. He’d make a film about somebody from Somalia to prove its people were strong, that somebody there was still able to hold on to a dream while the country crumbled.

He wanted to feature somebody detached from politics — a charismatic icon. Who could convince the comfortable to care about a bombed, starved and failed country on the other side of the world?

Perhaps two guys from the world’s 204th-best national soccer team.

Taking a chance

Biersmith found his subjects with a questionnaire. In November 2013, he landed in Kenya, where the Somalia national soccer team was playing a match, and handed the questionnaire out to the team.

What was the biggest fear you’ve faced?

What was the best moment of your life?

These were interesting questions, questions most other journalists didn’t ask, Saadiq thought. He approached Biersmith while his teammates wrote their answers.

My friend has a story he’d like to tell you about al-Shabab, he said.

It took some time for Sa’ad to be fully onboard with the film, to accept that it would mean risking and changing his life — leaving his family, his friends and his fans to find safety outside Somalia.

But Saadiq knew he wanted this from the beginning.

He had lost his father when he was 1. When he was a child, he and his family moved often to escape shootings and bombings. Sometimes, they lived in a $30-a-month rented room, and always in the poorest neighborhoods. If they were lucky, they had bread to eat.

If Saadiq’s and Sa’ad’s stories were told, their suffering could mean something. Their stories might make people care. Maybe they could be Somalia’s last generation to have to live like this.

Biersmith was Saadiq and Sa’ad’s best chance to tell their story, so they trusted him with their lives, though he was a stranger.

“I just felt he was doing the right thing,” Saadiq said. “You never know. You have to give everyone a chance to trust.”

Nighttime ride

Saadiq was the first to get out of Somalia.

He had been getting death threats for his soccer interviews on the radio, where he called for peace and soccer, not terror. Somebody pulled a gun on him. It was time to go.

One night, while he was in Uganda on a soccer trip, he was confronted by a stranger.

It’s time, he told Saadiq. Saadiq had known the man was coming, but not at 4 o’clock in the morning.

With only the clothes on his back, he followed the man into the rainy night. He hopped onto the man’s motorbike, and they stole away. The ground was so muddy that the bike kept slipping out from under them.

That’s how Saadiq got to Kenya.

Saadiq with AFC Leopards

Saadiq, far right, played with the AFC Leopards, a Kenyan soccer club. Courtesy of Saadiq Mohammed

He played for the AFC Leopards, a Kenyan soccer club, in the summer of 2013. Even as a soccer player, he wasn’t treated the same as his Kenyan teammates.

In April 2014, Kenyan police swept Nairobi in a wide-scale arrest of thousands of Somalis and refugees, including Saadiq, in response to recent terrorist attacks Kenya had suffered.

Somalis frequently face discrimination because al-Shabab is affiliated with their country. Many people in Kenya would not distinguish Saadiq’s face from that of al-Shabab.

Biersmith was the first person Saadiq texted after he was arrested and put in the back of a truck. “Small room 30 ppl,” he wrote Biersmith, with a picture of himself slumped on the truck bed. “No space alot of heat breathin is hard.”

Saadiq being arrested

Saadiq was arrested, put in the back of a truck and jailed in Nairobi, Kenya as part of a police roundup of thousands of Somalis. Police orchestrated the sweep in response to recent terror attacks in Kenya. Somalis have routinely endured discrimination because al-Shabab is affiliated with their country. Courtesy of Saadiq Mohammed

Biersmith worked to find a way out of Kenya for Saadiq. He got him a campus visit at Nova Southeastern University in Miami, then a tryout with the pro soccer team FC Dallas.

Saadiq played with the FC Dallas Academy, an MLS preparation program, for the 2014-15 season. But learning to live in a foreign country without friends was lonely. “Does anyone wants to talk to me I’m here,” he posted on Facebook.

“It was hard, so I used to hide my emotion,” Saadiq said. “I was heartbroken. I really missed my family and everything. No one understood me.”

To get on a college soccer team, Saadiq had to take the ACT and finish high school. He moved to St. Louis when Biersmith’s sister, Jessica Herschend, agreed to house, tutor and care for him like a son.

While raising a baby girl of her own, Herschend tutored Saadiq every day at her home in the Central West End. They stopped only to eat meals. Saadiq studied till 10 p.m. — on weekends, too.

His first practice score was disheartening: a 12 out of a possible 36. But when he finally took the real ACT test, he scored a respectable 23.

Herschend helped him enroll at Lift for Life Academy, a charter school in the city where he finished high school. He’s now the first in his family to make it to college.

“When you have an education, you can try different things in life,” Saadiq said. “You can help society. It’s like, when you have education, it’s very helpful to other people, not just by yourself, because people can learn from you. It’s like privilege if you have the education. People see you in a different way, too.”

Waiting in Kenya

Since May of last year, Sa’ad waited in Kenya.

He had made it there by stretching a visitor’s visa he had for an Olympic qualifying game. He waited for months while Biersmith used connections in Washington to convince the U.N. Refugee Agency to help Sa’ad.

Give this guy refugee status so he can go somewhere safe, Biersmith urged. He’s already risked a lot.

Saadiq and Sa'ad reunite

Saadiq and Sa'ad reunite at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport after being separated for two years. Courtesy of J.R. Biersmith

Thanks to Biersmith’s efforts, Sa’ad got clearance to come to St. Louis. He arrived in March. Reunited with Saadiq, it was like the old Sa’ad who joked and made Saadiq laugh had returned.

Early on, Biersmith said he had “really tried not to be involved in making life decisions” for Sa’ad and Saadiq.

But he had to be more than the filmmaker documenting their journey.

“If I don’t get involved in helping them for sharing their story and telling the truth, if I don’t help them be safe, I’m not a human being,” Biersmith said.

“It’s a promise of, I’m going to tell your story, I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Trust me, and I’m not going to sleep until we figure this out.”

Ready to play

It’s a warm spring day. Sunlight streams through the trees of Forest Park and bathes the cleat-pocked soccer field in a burnt yellow glow.

Time to warm up.

Sa’ad and Saadiq start with four laps jogging around the empty field, then timed sprints around the penalty box. “Come on! No breaks, man! Speed, come on!” Saadiq shouts while Sa’ad rests, pants, then takes off.

Time to stretch.

They follow the same routine they did while on the Somali national team. The two skip, hop and touch their toes in unison, a gentle rhythm they’ve memorized into their muscles that’s not unlike a dance.

Time to play.

They do what they can with just two people: strikes, some defense and passes. “You see my power!” Saadiq taunts as he strikes the ball. When it flies over the net, Sa’ad bursts into laughter, grabbing his knees to steady himself. Saadiq laughs, too.

They’re practicing together for a match they might never play, for a team they might never join.

For Saadiq, it’s the St. Louis University soccer team. He has a full athletic scholarship lined up there, but only if the NCAA will let him play.

His amateurism is in question. Is earning less than $500 a month on a club team in Kenya a professional career? The NCAA hasn’t decided.

Saadiq is taking classes at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park while he waits.

He’s also been waiting since last year on his application for asylum. If that’s denied … they try not to think about that.

“Literally, if Saadiq goes back home, he’s done,” Biersmith said. Meanwhile, “He can’t drive, he can’t get a job, he can’t do anything because he’s waiting for his case to be heard.”

Sa’ad’s wait is different, but not much more reassuring. He has to wait a year for the residency status that would let him try out for U.S. professional teams.

Until then, he could play on a U.S. team, but he’d have to land one of the few spots available to international players. He needs to find a job — the International Institute will help him, but his English is limited and he can’t drive.

From his home in Los Angeles, Biersmith worries about the delays.

He posts on Facebook and Twitter, chronicling the milestones of Sa’ad’s new life in St. Louis — his first day of English class, his first birthday party — trying to get the word out about the two guys and the film.

Saadiq with Herschends

Saadiq with Biersmith and the Herschend family, who took Saadiq in last year. Courtesy of J.R. Biersmith

Biersmith’s responsibility now is not only the lives of the two men, but the success of the film for which all three of them sacrificed everything.

For Biersmith, the project has consumed three years without earning him a cent.

Meanwhile, he and Herschend have been paying for Sa’ad’s and Saadiq’s clothes, food, transportation and school. Biersmith has been scraping by on some freelance work between the trips to Somalia, Kenya, Miami and St. Louis.

Mostly, he’s lived off of his savings — now all but depleted — and borrowing a lot of money. The documentary was not cheap. Armed security alone cost him more than $1,200 a day while filming in Somalia.

“I’ve been getting my ass kicked. I’ve given up everything,” said Biersmith.

He’s trying to raise $22,000 to launch the now-completed film and to pay for licensing fees.

He’s hoping to get the documentary into a film festival and programming network. Maybe Netflix.

“I think we can sell this film. I think that people just understanding what it took to make this film … I’ve given up my life for three years because I care about them,” Biersmith said. “This is a community of people that understand struggle like no one I’ve ever seen. You get caught up in it because you realize how much they care about each other.”

This is America

If their soccer plans don’t work out, Saadiq believes he and Sa’ad will be OK. They can make new plans.

This is America, the place Somalis believe is so impossible to reach that they call it “the last world.”

Sa’ad can go to school for the first time. Saadiq can go to college and maybe become an engineer like he wanted when he was a kid, when he built toy houses and cars — things his family couldn’t afford — out of metal scraps.

“You never know what’s going to happen (at) the next level in your life,” Saadiq said. “It always takes time and hard work and belief. So if you believe and have the confidence in yourself … you never know. If it doesn’t work, I will try my best to work out something else.”

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Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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